By Tim Nailsea
Members of Momentum may have noticed in recent months a worrying trend in communications from the Momentum national office.
• Many people have reported receiving repeated emails asking them to check whether they are still a member and that their subs are up to date.
• Some have also reported being asked to vote for a second time in the National Coordinating Group election after submitting their ballots, as their original vote was not recorded.
• Still others report receiving ballots despite having cancelled their membership a long time ago.
Throughout its five-year existence, there has been a rather vague notion of membership of Momentum, with many receiving emails and updates despite having left. Much of this may undoubtedly be put down to the usual organisational stresses often seen on the left, where understaffing or other problems may lead to mistakes being made. Given the large number of tasks expected of the left, it is inevitable in an active organisation that administrative issues might arise.
However, this particular set of problems, which seem to be focused on accurate records of membership, have their roots in a more fundamental political issue, that of what the organisation is for, and how it operates as a result.
Since the undemocratic coup in 2017, Momentum has, consciously on the part of Jon Lansman and the rest of the leadership (including, it must be said, high profile members and supporters of both the Momentum Renewal and Forward Momentum slates), moved away from a model of organisation which encouraged active members’ participation and democratic structures, to a top-down approach, where decisions are made by the leaders and presented to the membership as a fait accompli.
Democratic local branches were dissolved, and policy conferences were discarded, and with them any means of holding the leadership accountable were lost. That they were replaced with top-down plebiscites reflected the changed purpose of the organisation. Members have ceased to have any real role in shaping policy or initiatives and have largely been viewed as a “standing army” expected to turn up to canvassing, leafleting and other such events. The value of Momentum has largely been measured in its ability to deliver such “boots on the ground”.
Viewed in these terms, the membership list becomes more and more a glorified contact sheet used to deliver pre-arranged advertisements for activity; rather than a list of people expected to actively engage in and participate in the life of the organisation. The former has much less need of attention and updating, as it only really functions as a list of targets to email blast or mass text.
This approach to membership is typical of reformist organisations. When, like with Momentum, the primary aim is to implement socialism through Parliament, and the vehicle to do this is the Labour Party, then the central role is seen as being played by representatives – MPs, councillors, trade union leaders and other Labour grandees. The membership’s role in this is to provide support for them – canvass during elections, turn up to rallies to cheer their speeches and occasionally to march in official demonstrations. Otherwise their role is largely passive. This is because the reformist model of change rests upon party leaders and representatives working on behalf of the working class, rather than the working class bringing about its own liberation.
Some would argue, and some indeed have in the course of the current NCG election, that internal democracy is a distraction, an unnecessary indulgence when Momentum has so many important practical tasks to concern itself with. They argue that we should not argue about abstract organisational forms, so long as the desired outcome is achieved. The problem with this argument is that the method of organisation and the form that it takes has a direct relationship with the politics of any organisation. Marxists do not make a fetish of one particular organisational form in any and all circumstances. The way that we organise should be decided based upon the conditions we operate under and what it is that we aim to achieve.
Nevertheless, the particular form of organisation appropriate to a given set of conditions is itself determined by adherence to a set of principles, which are fundamental to building a socialist movement capable of making ‘the liberation of the working class, the act of the working class itself’.
This means: policy to be decided by representatives of members at a national conference wherever possible, an overall strategy decided by the members, which a leadership is elected to conduct, and the accountability and recallability of representatives at all levels of the organisation. This last, in Tony Benn’s blunt formula – ‘how do we get rid of you’ is a question that those running Momentum have neither asked nor answered.
How we organise is not incidental, it is critical in a project to change the world. Marxists insist that to bring about a socialist society, we need to harness the truly creative power of the working class. It is only through their mobilisation that we will be able to achieve the overturning of capitalism and the establishment of socialism.
It is the active participation of workers in the day-to-day struggle against capitalism that unleashes this creative energy. Marxists therefore insist that all workers’ organisations, unions and political parties, should have the maximum level of democracy and participation possible. It is through this engagement in their organisations that workers can take ownership of them and achieve their own emancipation, by being able to shape their own lives and conditions – something which capitalism denies them.
This is why an insistence on democracy at every level of the movement is not simply a distraction or an indulgence, but should be an absolute principle for anyone who wishes to build a movement aimed at bringing an end to capitalism.
The shoddy administrative practices and lack of democratic structures in Momentum are not just unfortunate phenomena, they are part of a whole manner of doing politics that should be discarded.